Are French feminists, in the post-DSQ uprising, taking the same etymological liberties? The story I heard on NPR yesterday roused my suspicions (as any too-good-to-check etymology should do). There’s a campaign to create a Gallic equivalent of Ms., freeing French women from the stark choice between Madame (married) and Mademoiselle (not). And spokeswoman Marie-Noelle Bas, arguing the case, told the reporter why mademoiselle was offensive: “oiselle in French is the feminine of oiseau [bird]. And in ancient French, that means virgin, that means stupid, that means somebody who needs to be married."
Well, my Larousse tells me that oiselle does indeed mean “jeune fille naive, niaise” -- a naive or silly girl. (I'll take Bas's word for the "needing to be married" connotation, which is plausible enough.) But does the word have anything to do with mademoiselle?
I don’t think so. Oiselle, says Larousse, comes from the Latin aucellus, the diminutive form of avis (bird). Demoiselle (the source of English damsel) is derived from the Latin dominicella, diminutive of domina, lady (of the house), mistress, female boss. The shared syllables in oiselle and mademoiselle seem to show only that both are descended from diminutive forms, not that they're closer relatives than, say, marionette and lunette, or mozzarella and patella.
But if I’m missing something, dear Francophone readers and scholars, do let me know.